SIGHT-FISH­ING FEVER

Don’t Miss North Carolina’s Ex­cit­ing Spring Run of Cobia off the Beaches

Sport Fishing - - CONTENTS - By Rob Wittman

For me,a true sign of spring mak­ing the tran­si­tion to sum­mer fol­lows on the heels of the first re­ports of cobia be­ing caught off the North Carolina coast. Sight-fish­ing for cobia had its ge­n­e­sis, at least in terms of boat de­sign, in the north­ern Gulf of Mex­ico, where many boats bear tow­ers and el­e­vated cast­ing plat­forms. Sim­i­larly, as the cobia sight-fish­ery off North Carolina has ex­ploded in re­cent years, these days you’ll see many boats sport­ing tow­ers and el­e­vated plat­forms.

Cobia sight-fish­ing has be­come a ma­jor sport in the salt­wa­ter recre­ational-fish­ing scene along the coast of North Carolina, a sport to which many — like me — are to­tally ad­dicted.

Dur­ing the first half of May, North Carolina an­glers nor­mally en­counter the sea­son’s first cobia around nearshore open-At­lantic shoals. As water tem­per­a­tures warm, cobia move from off­shore to in­shore ar­eas. This avail­abil­ity makes North Carolina one of the top bets on the At­lantic Coast for spring cobia ac­tion. (Though mid-May through mid-June is a peak pe­riod, cobia con­tinue to be tar­geted and caught through the sum­mer.)

Ma­jor hot spots for spring cobia in­clude Cape Look­out Shoals and Di­a­mond Shoals, as well as Ore­gon In­let.

SIGHT-FISH­ING HOT SHOTS

Early in the sea­son last year, I joined sight-fish­ing en­thu­si­asts Carl Perry and J.T. Fra­zier on the char­ter

Rock Solid (a 36 Ricky Scar­bor­ough), de­part­ing the Ore­gon In­let Fish­ing Cen­ter at 7:30 a.m. For me — still re­call­ing our 4:30 a.m. de­par­tures when I worked as a mate on an off­shore char­ter boat 30-some years ago — we were un­com­fort­ably late. How­ever, Capt. Aaron Kelly re­minded me that “there’s no use in our get­ting out there be­fore the sun’s up high enough for us to see clearly enough into the water” since we were all about spot­ting cobia.

Kelly was no ran­dom or ca­sual choice of a char­ter. I knew that Kelly runs one of the most ac­com­plished cobia boats on the East Coast. At the same time, his first mate, Bob Feld­haus, is a cobia ex­pert who has de­vel­oped a line of Meat Hog jigs, ex­traor­di­nar­ily ef­fec­tive buck­tails for cobia.

As we cruised out the in­let, Kelly told us that yes­ter­day they’d spot­ted 24 cobes but hooked only eight. “The fish weren’t turned on,” he said, as they had been ear­lier in the week.

ADAPT AND HOOK UP

Rock Solid headed to­ward the fourth set of in­let buoys. The sun hadn’t re­ally ma­te­ri­al­ized; we faced a 15-knot south­west wind un­der mostly cloudy skies — not great con­di­tions for sight-cast­ing.

We strained to see any cobia that might be on these nav­i­ga­tion mark­ers. Kelly be­lieves these to be the best cobia at­trac­tors in the area, com­ment­ing, “I’ve made my en­tire day on many oc­ca­sions by fish­ing these mark­ers.”

How­ever, on that morn­ing, we found no fish on any of the mark­ers, in­clud­ing the last of the mark­ers that lo­cals call the sea buoy.

Af­ter clear­ing the sea buoy, we ran south of the in­let, all three an­glers in the tower try­ing to cover ev­ery an­gle of water, gaz­ing through our po­lar­ized sun­glasses and hop­ing to spot a cobia through the glare and chop. Kelly zigzagged from within 400 yards of the beach to a half-mile out, but we spot­ted no brown-backed sur­face swim­mers.

Af­ter three fruit­less hours, as we ar­rived off the beaches of Ro­dan­the, we spot­ted our first cobia. Un­for­tu­nately, af­ter we made sev­eral un­suc­cess­ful casts, the fish dis­ap­peared. Not much later, we saw a pair of cobia. I man­aged a good cast just to their

left, and the larger of the two darted out to eat the buck­tail. Af­ter a brief bat­tle, we had the 32-inch cobia un­hooked and re­leased.

Over the next three hours, we saw an­other dozen cobia, in sin­gles and pairs, and we hooked and re­leased six, the largest of these fish at 36 inches, which is the min­i­mum size limit for cobia in North Carolina.

By 2:30 that af­ter­noon, a line of storms made sight-fish­ing im­pos­si­ble. We adapted quickly, chang­ing tech­niques to slow-troll live men­haden that we had cast-net­ted ear­lier, rigged be­hind 2-ounce egg sinkers. The baits weren’t in the water for 15 min­utes when both rods went down.

Af­ter the first fish came un­but­toned five min­utes into the fight, we saw that the hook had bro­ken. I con­tin­ued to wres­tle the other cobia. But af­ter an­other 15 min­utes, with the fish fi­nally boat­side, the un­mis­tak­able cop­per or­ange of a red drum ap­peared.

Set­ting the rod in the holder (as years of be­ing a first mate had me act­ing in­stinc­tively), I grabbed the line, led the red­fish to the boat, and lifted it care­fully onto the deck. Quickly un­hook­ing the hefty catch once we had mea­sured the fish at 46 inches, we re­leased it.

SUC­CESS­FUL FIRST DAY

By then, the storms had passed and we re­sumed sight-fish­ing. We ended up spot­ting three more cobia, re­leas­ing two of those, for a day’s to­tal 17 fish sighted and nine caught and re­leased (none quite went the le­gal size).

Bot­tom line: We had seen a good num­ber of fish un­der very chal­leng­ing con­di­tions and man­aged a de­cent suc­cess rate. We were, how­ever, puz­zled

Over the next three hours, we saw an­other dozen cobia, in sin­gles and pairs, and we hooked and re­leased six, the largest of these fish at 36 inches.

as to why we saw no le­gal-size fish that day, and spec­u­lated that we’d caught smaller cobia that had re­cently made their way to wa­ters near the beach.

Clear, sunny days with winds re­main­ing less than 12 knots of­fer best con­di­tions. On such days, I’ve seen to­tals as high as 70 fish spot­ted and up to 30 hooked and re­leased.

Heavy-over­cast windy days take sight-fish­ing pretty well out of the equa­tion, but skip­pers still catch cobia by fish­ing live croak­ers or eels near a chum bucket on the bot­tom. No live bait? You can sure catch cobia on cut bait, but also ex­pect a higher per­cent­age of hookups from fish you don’t re­ally want.

BEST TACKLE AND JIGS

Kelly and Feld­haus have col­lab­o­rated to make great ad­vances in sight-fish­ing for cobia, in­clud­ing the de­vel­op­ment of best col­ors and op­ti­mal buck­tail jigs, pre­sen­ta­tion tech­niques, and best rod-and-reel com­bi­na­tions for cast­ing to and land­ing cobia, they have truly ad­vanced the fish­ery.

From time spent with them, it seems that the best out­fits for sight-fish­ing cobia are 8-foot spin­ning rods with soft-ac­tion tips for cast­ing, and stiff butts for putting on the pres­sure, such as the Shi­mano pop­ping-rod series. While I fa­vor Shi­mano reels, in gen­eral, spin­ners from 8000 to 14000 size filled with 40- to 50-pound braid work well. Feld­haus adds to each rig a 4-foot sec­tion of 40- to 50-pound-test Seaguar fluoro­car­bon leader at­tached to the braid

with an FG knot.

I’ve had great suc­cess with Feld­haus’ Meat Hog jigs, es­pe­cially lighter-colored heads dressed with brightly colored feath­ers. My per­sonal fa­vorite is a bright-green squid-head Meat Hog jig called the Green Goblin, with bright-and-dark-green feath­ers and a translu­cent-green twister tail.

To min­i­mize the twister tail in­ter­fer­ing with the hook, I snip off some of the plas­tic body to shorten the lure so the hook comes out just ahead of where the round body flat­tens to the tail. While fish­ing with Kelly a few years ago on Di­a­mond Shoals, I caught 98- and 96-pound cobia the same day us­ing a Green Goblin jig. Kelly likes a Meat Hog flat­head buck­tail in a brown­ish-cop­per color dressed with emu feath­ers, which he calls the Emu Flash. He fishes this lure with­out a tail be­cause “on that jig, the feath­ers pro­vide the lure ac­tion.”

ONE LEATHERBACK, A ZIL­LION POGIES AND DOZENS OF COBIA

That first day on Rock Solid had been suc­cess­ful given the some­what-chal­leng­ing con­di­tions, but we were ready for a bang-up sec­ond ses­sion.

Un­for­tu­nately, the weather for the Ore­gon In­let area the next morn­ing was unset­tled. Radar showed a line of slow-mov­ing storms west of the strand of beaches from Ro­dan­the to Bux­ton to Hat­teras In­let.

But the cap­tain con­fi­dently asked us, “Are you guys ready to go?”

“What about the weather?” I re­turned.

“You can’t catch ’em at the dock! Let’s go.” And with that, Kelly fired up the diesel en­gine on

Rock Solid and we headed out. Sure enough, at the can buoy on the way, a cobia that looked to be in the 60-pound range nailed my bright-green Grem­lin model of Meat Hog buck­tail with a white plas­tic tail, but it came un­but­toned.

A half-hour later, head­ing south off the coast, we spot­ted a gi­ant leatherback tur­tle and aimed to­ward it in hopes that a ret­inue of cobia would be in tow.

Sure enough, just as the leatherback raised its mam­moth head out of the water, we saw four nice­size cobia. From the tower, we strug­gled to get the right an­gle to cast jigs in front of the fish. Perry and I both hooked up; the cobia promptly had our

We came upon a school of men­haden that stretched as far as the eye could see, with bait show­er­ing here and there.

lines crossed and we scram­bled to keep lines clear, even­tu­ally get­ting a pair of 40-pounders to the boat. We re­leased both.

The weather im­proved, and we con­tin­ued to see cobia, catch­ing and re­leas­ing nine.

Then we came upon a school of men­haden that stretched as far as the eye could see, with bait show­er­ing here and there. We no­ticed ar­eas within the acres of bait where the sur­face was smooth. We quickly dis­cov­ered that within these calm ar­eas, the bait­fish had cleared out to make room for cobia look­ing for a meal.

I won­dered if in those cir­cum­stances, with un­lim­ited bait all around, the cobia would eat a buck­tail jig. “Well, we’re fixin’ to find out!” Kelly said with a laugh.

I cast a pink-and-white buck­tail in front a big cobia sit­ting in the middle of tens of thou­sands of pogies. The fish didn’t even hes­i­tate, eat­ing the jig right away. Some 20 min­utes later, I landed that healthy 60-pounder.

By day’s end, we had seen more than 50 cobia, catch­ing and re­leas­ing 12 fish more than 40 pounds.

Dur­ing the peak of North Carolina’s cobia sea­son, days like this aren’t uncommon. The ex­cite­ment and visual im­pact of sight-fish­ing for cobia is as good as fish­ing gets. Up and down the nearshore coastal wa­ters of the state, from the Crys­tal Coast to the Outer Banks, sight-fish­ing for cobia reigns supreme in late spring and early sum­mer.

ABOUT THE AU­THOR

Rob Wittman grew up work­ing on char­ter boats in North Carolina and Vir­ginia. He now rep­re­sents the First Con­gres­sional District in Vir­ginia in the United States Congress. He is chair­man of the Con­gres­sional Sports­men’s Cau­cus, which works on is­sues and leg­is­la­tion im­por­tant to recre­ational fish­er­men.

Some of the au­thor’s fa­vorite cobia lures are these Meat Hog Jigs de­vel­oped by Bob Feld­haus and Aaron Kelly. At top is an Emu Flash (which uses real emu feath­ers and is meant to be fished with­out a tail). Be­low are var­i­ous other jigs in the Meat Hog...

Above: NOAA fish­ery man­agers have di­vided the At­lantic cobia pop­u­la­tion into two stocks: the Gulf group, which in­cludes the east coast of Florida, and the At­lantic group, which in­cludes all cobia north of the Florida-Ge­or­gia bor­der. Be­low: A swing and...

The au­thor with a keeper cobia, one of hun­dreds he has caught and largely re­leased thanks to many years of hon­ing tackle and tech­niques for one of his fa­vorite game fish.

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